Your breath is directly connected to your physical and mental health. When you’re unwell, your breathing is often the first thing that changes.
If you’ve ever had a panic attack, for instance, you may recall that your breathing rapidly increased in a matter of moments. Changing your breathing, however, can help you regain control over different aspects of your body.
Breathing deeply triggers your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), deactivates your body’s adrenaline response, and brings you out of fight-or-flight mode. In other words, if you were able to get your breathing under control, you might have been able to calm yourself down and ride out what could have been a terrifying experience.
But how often do most of us really think about breathing? Let’s explore how a little research on different types of breathing and an increased awareness of them can strengthen the connection between body, breath, and mind.
1. Thoracic Breathing
Thoracic breathing, or shallow breathing, is the least “productive” way to breathe. When someone hyperventilates, they often engage in thoracic breathing.
Your thoracic spine is the part of your body that extends from the bottom of your neck to the cradle of your rib cage. If your breathing is mostly happening in this area of your body, it may look like deep chest breaths. But while deep chest movements seemingly indicate deeper breathing, deep breaths don’t necessarily mean the quality of your breathing is beneficial.
Since many people hyperventilate when experiencing panic or anxiety, getting out of the habit of thoracic breathing may be helpful in reducing anxiety levels.
2. Abdominal Breathing
In abdominal breathing, you breathe into the space below your rib cage. Abdominal breathing allows you to access more oxygen than thoracic breathing does, since it gives your lungs more space to expand.
Although abdominal breathing is better than thoracic breathing, there’s an even more beneficial way to breathe.
3. Diaphragmatic Breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing is the most efficient and effective form of breathing. Although your diaphragm is technically always engaged when you’re breathing, consciously thinking about breathing through your abdomen can be beneficial to your body.
Your diaphragm is a large bell-shaped muscle that sits beneath your lungs. When it expands, it allows your lungs to reach their full capacity.
Practicing diaphragmatic breathing can improve your lung capacity and help you strengthen your breathing muscles.
On average, people only use about 70% of their lung capacity when they breathe. Your lungs are an amazingly powerful organ, but they can lose strength if you don’t use them properly. So, practice breathing big and deep when you can.
Here’s how to practice diaphragmatic breathing to increase your oxygen intake:
- As you inhale, contract your diaphragm (the muscle directly below your lungs).
- As air enters your lungs, your chest won’t rise, but your belly will expand.
- As air leaves your lungs, expand your diaphragm and exhale.
You can practice diaphragmatic breathing while sitting at your desk, while at the gym, or while relaxing at home. In fact, why not give it a try now?
Don’t Hold Your Breath!
Since we tend to hold our breath when we’re stressed, try to consciously stop yourself from doing so.
Instead, practice diaphragmatic breathing to help counteract the effects of stress.
Best Breathing Practices
If you’ve ever trained as an athlete or a singer, you probably already know that breathing is integral to a good performance. These healthy breathing tactics can also carry over into many other areas of your life.
Meditation and yoga are other common practices in which you utilize the power of diaphragmatic breathing to benefit your body.
Here are some additional benefits of diaphragmatic breathing:
- Because breathing properly can lower the harmful effects of the stress hormone, cortisol, on your body, it can also help you relax
- Reduced heart rate
- Lower blood pressure
- Increased ability to cope with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Improved core muscle stability
- Enhanced ability to tolerate intense exercise
- Less chance of injuring or wearing out your muscles
- Slower rate of breathing which expends less energy
Breathing Exercises to Try
Yoga is a great practice to use as a foundation for breath work. We’ve pulled a few more exercises for you to easily use in your own life.
Kapalabhati is a vitalizing pranayama exercise that also cleanses the lungs. Forceful exhalations expel the old, used air out of the lungs, making space for fresh air enriched with oxygen. In this way, you cleanse the entire respiratory system.
During Anuloma Viloma breathing, you’ll practice inhaling through the left nostril, retaining the breath, and exhaling through the right nostril in a ratio of 1:4:2 seconds. You’ll then use the same ratio as you inhale through the right nostril, retain the breath, and exhale through the left nostril.
This practice can help your body find harmony throughout your whole nervous system and balance both hemispheres of the brain.
Every two hours, your brain activity shifts from one hemisphere to the other. It’s said that yogis discovered this natural occurrence through self-observation of breath flow through the nostrils.
This means that, when we breathe more freely through our right nostril, the left hemisphere of our brain is more active; conversely, when we can breathe more freely through the left nostril, the right hemisphere is more active.
Alternate nostril breathing supports this regular alternation of breath and thus brain activity.
The Bottom Line
Proper breathwork, especially diaphragmatic breathing, serves as a vital pillar of well-being that impacts our physical and mental health.
Since we often breathe on autopilot, we may take for granted the opportunity we have to think about the quality of our breaths. However, every breath is an opportunity to fuel our brains and bodies with the oxygen they need to function properly.
And, naturally, gifting your body with what it needs in terms of breathing can benefit every other area of your life.
There are so many ways to optimize your life that are simple, but seldom thought about. If you’re looking for help reaching your greatest goals, an Arootah coach can support you on your journey.